There’s some terminology in the animal training world that I think can be easy to get confused about so I wanted to list some information about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. With positive I think of a plus sign so it’s always adding something and with negative I think of a minus sign so it’s taking something away..
Adding something to increase the likelihood of the desired behaviour. for example giving the pet a treat when a pet sits.
This is when something aversive is taken away once the desired behaviour has been provided. For example – a shock collar which will deliver a shock when a dog barks. When the dog stops barking then the shock will also stop. (Obviously it’s important to note here that something aversive first has to be added to be then taken away). Read more about why shock collars were banned in the UK – thankfully! However, this can also be less intrusive such as turning away from the dog when they’re jumping up (you’re taking away your attention which can be aversive for the dog if that’s the reason they’re jumping up).
Adding something aversive – this may be a tap on the head or nose. It’s designed to cause pain and stop the behaviour.
This refers to punishment by removal – so taking something away that the pet likes, such as a toy.
Problems with positive punishment and negative reinforcement
Aside from the ethical reasons of causing pain there are a number of other reasons why punishment is out-dated and flawed as well as dangerous..
- It doesn’t teach the animal what to do instead. Isn’t it better to teach a behaviour that you’d prefer rather than constantly reprimanding behaviour you don’t want? I imagine it would be a shorter amount of time, and time spent more valuably training behaviours that are wanted.
- It doesn’t get to the root of the cause for the behaviour and can suppress behaviours which can in turn lead to other undesired behaviours
- With punishment you often have to increase the intensity of the force used for it to be felt as aversive – this can lead to relationships with pets being destroyed and the chance of really hurting the pet.
- The timing has to be exact for the pet to associate the punishment with what the behaviour they’ve just given. Some people have argued that mother dog’s pick up their dogs by their necks to scold them therefore we can too. Well we’re not dogs – we’re not as fast as them and also we provide punishment out of frustration and there are different ethical ways that we can use instead.
Building a trust account
Tip of the hat to the wonderful and very clever Dr Susan Friedman who coined the analogy of trust account and withdrawals that i’m about to describe…It’s important when sharing our lives with our pets, and with each other, that we build a big ‘trust account’ bank that can withstand ‘withdrawals’ that will inevitably happen.With our animals to build up a big trust account with them this can involve things they like – such as petting perhaps, playtime, exercise, enrichment and positive training. When we have to do something that would be perceived as aversive to our pet (perhaps picking them up from the kitchen counter when they’ve jumped up at it, or administering flea treatment.. why does it smell so strong?? or pulling them from going into the road if they’ve darted while on lead…), then when we do these things they aren’t affected by them to the extent that they become fearful of us. Our hands have administered good things such as petting, grooming, and food enough times that that ‘withdrawal from the trust account’ isn’t so large that they flee from us through fear or bite us to get the hand away too. However, in the past if person’s hands have delivered something painful like a tap on the nose or a hit on the hand then the hand becomes something that’s unpredictable and makes a dog more likely to bite. You can read more about this here.
Some people argue that science teaches what can be done, and punishment sometimes works in stopping the unwanted behaviour.. however science doesn’t teach us about ethics.. so just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done. When choosing a dog trainer, an important starting point (aside from looking at the qualifications, training and testimonials, and accreditations) is to always consider whether you’d be happy with the methods they propose to use on your pet, and if you’d be happy with those things being done/used on you – if the answer is no then it’s a safe bet to say that pet’s won’t either and a host of other problems – emotional and physical can be caused by working with someone who proposes aversive methods. This article provides a good overview of the benefits of reward based training and the science behind this ethical form of training. In terms of behavioural problems especially such as reactivity, fear and aggression it’s imperative to work with someone who is qualified.